Jamie and I went to an Army game on Saturday night. As it happened, they were playing Tulane. Aside from one-half of one Dartmouth game that I can barely remember (it was a home game…), the only college football games I’ve ever been to have been Tulane games, which I thought was an odd coincidence.
The Army game was way cool, and of course, I found myself rooting for Army, who managed to tie the game on a last second hail-mary touchdown pass, and then win in overtime. We sat with Jamie’s sister and her husband’s family, who are at least second generation season ticket holders and have great seats. Plus, we got to tailgate with them before the game which was a lot of fun (there isn’t much tailgating at the Superdome in New Orleans). My Brother-in-law has a nephew who’s a first year cadet at West Point, and he and some friends came for the extended tailgating. (It happened to be homecoming weekend and a night game, so we had a lot of time before the game.)
But I found the game especially intriguing not because of the action on the field, but because of the context surrounding the field.
The context began to set in as we drove down. We’d been reminded to bring our licenses; we needed a photo ID to get in (that doesn’t happen at every college stadium). As we entered the USMA (United States Military Academy) grounds, we showed our id’s to regular rent-a-cop security personnel and proceeded through the temporary checkpoint. About 100 yards past the gate we came to what looked like a very serious cattle-guard across the road. But, of course, it wasn’t a cattle-guard, it was a very serious, large, steel road blockading device. It’s a reminder that we’re entering an active military base; they can close these roads if they need to.
As we got closer to the stadium we saw fewer rent-a-cops and more MP’s in their gray camouflage (which seemed odd — it’s early October in upstate NY. Grey stands out against the green/red/burnt umber of the trees pretty well). And of course, at the tailgate party there were a slew of handsome young men in their cadet uniforms. (A note to any young single women out there: there are some seriously good-looking boys at West Point.)
So I know that I’m at an Army game, I get it. This is West Point, etc… etc… blah blah blah… cool enough.
But then we take a walk, a little mini-tour of the grounds around the stadium. We don’t see much: athletic facilities which could be on any campus in the country, a very pretty reservoir, and the outside of a very large chapel. But we also see a few monuments. Monuments to fallen soldiers, to fallen cadets. Monuments to young men who gave their lives in service to their country.
Now I’m really starting to get it. Maybe I’m overly sentimental, but I’m starting to get a real sense of… honor. I know it’s corny, but the place itself seemed honorable. Maybe it’s all the young men and women in their pressed, crisp uniforms, or the MP’s and their rifles. Or the fact that the campus is spotless. Or that there are military helicopters overhead and troop vehicles on the road, or maybe it’s the artillery battery lined up across from the stadium….
We went into the stadium and then it really starts to hit me. Before the start of each game, there’s a regimental parade. The cadets at the USMA are divided into four regiments, each with a cadet Captain and cadet staff officers and each regiments is divided into two battalions of four companies — each with a cadet commander. Before the game, one regiment parades into the stadium and the officers are announced. It’s a military parade with precision marching, flags and semaphores to direct the cadets. I learn that in addition to the four regimental cadet-captains there’s a cadet Captain of the Corps each year — and I begin to think about what kind of honor that must be for a 21 year-old.
The cadets take their hats off and salute the opposing team and the visiting fans. How often do you see that? The student body sits in a reserved section like they do at many football games around the country. But these students are all in uniform. They cheer, but their cheers are organized and civil.
Then came the paratroopers.
Before each game, three cadets jump from a helicopter at 4,500 feet. The three that jumped on Saturday each landed dead center at midfield. It was amazing. I was awed not only by the fact that they were willing to jump out of a helicopter at 4,500 feet, and not just by the fact that they came down in even formation, and not just by the fact that they did it with such precision. I was awed by the realization that they would also be willing to do exactly the same thing even if people on the ground were shooting at them.
Then they announced their honorary captains. There was a little girl from the Make-A-Wish foundation — which I’ve seen at other football games. But then there were also two alums. Both were combat veterans and both had lost limbs. Later in the game, they announced and introduced various other combat veterans and alumni in attendance. Now, I know that US Army soldiers come from all walks of life and many different colleges. Even my alma-mater probably has one or two veterans (Abbie Hoffman does not count). But everyone who graduates from West Point will serve in active duty — and we’re at war.
Throughout the game I remained very conscious that it was a game. It wasn’t the most important thing in the world for these young men — it might have been the most important on that night. But each of those players — as well as all of their classmates — have made a fantastically difficult decision at a very young age.
I was overwhelmed. At that age I would have been incapable of making that kind of decision, of committing myself to something as large and dangerous as the USMA. Part of me is envious. Going to West Point makes you a part of something for life — it creates an enormously powerful social network and provides intense psychological visibility. It also requires a great deal of discipline and submission.
It’s not a choice that I think I could or would ever make. There’s a lot wrong in the military and it requires a temperament that I just don’t have. But after that game, I have to admit it.
I’m a fanboy.